Pleasurable slow-burner “The Lost Domain,” newest by prolific, Chilean-born fest favorite Raoul Ruiz, offers dazzling scenery and artful storytelling in the Proustian manner of his “Time Regained.” Latest packs more heft than helmer’s recent output, but even though “Domain” touches on the 1973 coup which exiled helmer from his native land, pic feels curiously cerebral and lacking in passion. Film should land easily at further fests, but may get stuck in a holding pattern behind his last bigger-budgeted features, “That Day” and “A Place Among the Living,” which still haven’t touched down theatrically in most major territories.
Intricately structured story flits back and forth across several time frames and settings, although the three most prominently featured are Chile in 1932 and 1973, and Blighty during WWII.
Reassembled in chronological order, plot tells of encounters both direct and oblique over the years between French aviator-cum-treasure-seeker Antoine Renaud (Francois Cluzet) and a much younger Chilean, Max Miranda. The latter is the nominal narrator here, and is played by three different actors: as a child by Robert Florentin Ilie; as a young man and a 71-year-old by Gregoire Colin; and as Max at 51 by Colin’s real-life father Christian Colin.
In 1932, Antoine lands his plane at a seaside farmhouse belonging to the family of 10-year-old Max, who is soon inspired to become a pilot. While searching for booty together, Antoine and Max discover a phantasmal mansion populated by men and women in late 19th-century tuxes and ball gowns, whose conversation echoes that of characters in a novel later treasured by both men, “Les Grand Meaulnes” (aka “The Wanderer”) by Henri Alain-Fournier.
Ten years later, at an airbase in England, the two men meet again. Now-grown Max is assigned to teach Antoine how to fly the new fighter planes for missions across the Channel to fight the Nazis.
The above unfolds in a mosaic of flashbacks while the 51-year-old Max sits in his family’s farmhouse back in Chile on the night of Sept. 11, 1973, telling stories to Antoine’s grown son Augustin (Julien Honore) and his g.f. Cecile (Laurence Cordier), who are hiding from Chile’s right-wing junta’s soldiers.
Given how much the events in Chile that year affected the helmer’s own life, one might expect some warming up here of his cinematic sangfroid. But Ruiz invests no more dramatic weight in the 1973 part of “The Lost Domain” than he does in the sections set in the ’30s or ’40s.
Perhaps this is precisely his point. The lost world of Allende’s socialist Chile is a mere figment of memory, recoverable only through storytelling, much like the ghost villa, the characters in Alain-Fournier’s novel, and a wrecked ship that is introduced in the opening scene and never mentioned again. It’s a shame those stories are not very interesting in themselves.
Ruiz’s command of technique is in very good form here. The script segues between periods deftly, so that everything seems to be happening at once, like an arthouse, multilingual variant on “Slaughterhouse 5.” Occasionally startling imagery — like all the guests suddenly donning death masks at ghost villa — serve to remind of Ruiz’s early, surrealist roots.
Transitions between periods are smoothed by elegant match cuts, while different lensing techniques (standard photography, bi-chromatic lensing and polarizing filters) give each time frame a distinctive look.
Extensive use of sets enhances artificial atmosphere. Other craft contributions are largely aces, apart from the aging make-up which is less convincing (although this may have been intentional on part of helmer to bolster B-movie atmosphere).
For the record, pic was filmed in France and Romania, the latter offering a suitably lunar looking landscape to substitute for the Chilean mountains.